Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Twenty-five year old Hazel is reading the classics, starting with ‘A’. It’s one way to pass the time when you’ve quit your job and lost your way.
The Art of Persuasion is the first novel, but not the first published work, by Western Australian author, Susan Midalia. At first reading, it is a story of how an intelligent teacher, Hazel, unemployed and disillusioned, eventually finds the job she is craving and also discovers a fulfilling relationship with an older man. She first meets Adam on the train where they get into a conversation about the books they are both carrying. This leads to Hazel volunteering to join Adam’s group of door-knockers for the Greens. From these activities a mutual attraction is generated and eventually acted upon.
I was happy that Hazel was able to achieve her goals but was also frustrated by some of her less flattering characteristics, namely her continual introspection, her references to the many books she has read and her often talkativeness about inconsequential things when out of her comfort zone. Accompanying Adam to a wine bar she prattles on “about growing up in Perth but hating the summer heat and the hedonistic worship of the sun…how she loved the yellow leaves and the cooler weather”. The “doof doof atavistic music, crowds of beautiful people shouting to be heard, heaps of stick-insect girls with pneumatic breasts who made Hazel want to hide in the shadows” (35) also highlighted her limited social skills.
As the story comes to its conclusion the reader is left dis-satisfied. What was the significance of the title? The Art of Persuasion suggests an ability to influence people. So is this book about trying to persuade, mostly apathetic voters, to embrace a particular political ideology; or to convince Adam that the age difference, or the fact that he already had a child and could not have more was not an impediment to their relationship; or was it about persuading young minds to think and express their own ideas?
Is there a more distant link to the novels of Jane Austen? The first of the classic authors Hazel has set herself to read is Austen and she did write a novel called Persuasion. There are also many references to Austen’s books in this story. The wording on the book cover says that this book “is a rarity: a witty and tender comedy of manners that also has a political bite” and I agree that the story does have some of the key elements of this genre, however for me this story was an indictment on modern day society. What shines through is the inappropriateness of our education system to prepare people for real life. Too many educated people cannot find jobs in their particular fields and too many young people in schools could have said about them- “It was always an effort to get him to lift a goddamn pen” (190).
This story also shows the reader that individual attitudes to a particular situation can determine the type of life we lead. Hazel describes what her life in these words:
”I meet up with friends and we talk about work, study, relationships…the usual stuff. And sometimes I go to parties, although I’m getting too old for parties, they’re mostly very superficial” (41), while her flat-mate Beth, also a university graduate tries for advertised positions and has the same misfortunes as her friend, the difference being that she can get by without brooding. “Six o’clock. My alcohol gene just kicked in…I have to fill in my Newstart form after dinner” (49).
The author, Susan Midalia, who was shortlisted for major literary awards for her three collections of short stories, in her first novel, may not have given the reader a thoroughly feel good love story but she has certainly given us much to ponder.
The Art of Persuasion
By Susan Midalia